One early 1970s incident, involving Rastas gathered in a tenement yard, remains branded into my memory more than 40 years later. Their deeply religious practice of smoking marijuana – also called ganja or weed - offended no one, except those bothered by the unmistakable smell of the smoke, the sight of dreadlocked men and women who generated it or Rastas’ rebellion against the pretentious scraps left behind by British rule.
So maybe someone called the cops. A vehicle pulled up and armed police officers kicked open the gate and stormed the yard, barking threats. One Rasta yelled: “Run iyah, run, the Philistines are upon us!” Too late. They were battered with guns, boots, fists and batons then herded– bruised, broken and bloodied - into the vehicle and taken to jail.
People stood and stared. Stunned. Helpless. They realized the Rastas were people they knew, who never hurt anyone. Like me, they had seen – and would continue to witness for years - many similar incidents. “Dutty Rastas”, as some cops called them, were regular targets of harassment and abuse because they had “violated the law” by smoking weed. Many in the Rastafari community were seriously injured, permanently scarred – physically and mentally - by the brutality. Some died.
“Baldheads” suffered too. It’s hard to forget being pushed against the wall by cops as a child, cold steel of guns pressed against your back or neck, for a “search” and threatened with jail if they found “even a seed” of weed.
Today, people with no serious connection to Rastafari have made wearing dreadlocks fashionable. The faithful, however, remain strong. Smoking marijuana – their holy sacrament - is still a vital.
Influential Rastafari, like late entertainers Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, helped Caribbean people understand the sheer wickedness of abuse against marijuana users. Marley and Tosh long suspected the crackdown on weed and its users was part of a plot by corrupt people determined to keep poor people marginalized and oppressed. In his song “Wanted Dread and Alive”, Tosh called them “evil forces.”
The Caribbean, over decades before and since that ‘70s incident, punished its people for marijuana use. It was easier to be beaten and jailed for a spliff than embezzling funds. Rastas bore the brunt of the brutality.
All types of reasons, furnished mainly by the same oppressors, are still being used to abuse marijuana users. Health is one, although the general medical community has long accepted the benefits of weed.
Last month Dr. Faud Khan, former Trinidad and Tobago health minister, called for the decriminalization of marijuana for medical purposes. Dr. Sanja Gupta, medical correspondent for American television network CNN, in a letter last month to United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions, backed marijuana’s benefits and effectiveness in fighting he opioid crisis.
He also highlighted that the negative stigma shadowing marijuana was linked to early research, “96 percent” of which, he told CNN, “looked for harm” rather than benefits in weed.
Yet the Caribbean – home some say to the world’s best ganja – has slow-walked its cultural shift while others quickened their pace. In the U.S., marijuana possession and use is illegal in many places. People like Sessions appear intent on eradicating its use. In others, however, ganja use is being allowed, even encouraged. Some say the same oppressors are finally seeing the light – and shiny profits – of liberating the weed.
So it was a stunning when Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne last month told the Rastafari community he was sorry for the abuse it suffered over marijuana.
“The prohibition and demonization have led to Rastafari being brutalized and castigated by police and other government authorities, because of the utilization of the plant cannabis sativa,” Browne declared ahead of April 20, “International Day of Cannabis”.
“… I have issued a genuine apology to the Rastafarian community, and have asserted that Rastafari sacramental or spiritual use be acknowledged.
“… Let us regard this as reparations for Rastafari, for the wrongs inflicted on this significant minority group in our countries, through the so called ‘war on drugs’, which evidently was prompted by pernicious prohibition.”
He accused “racist, political and economic interests” of oppressing Rastas over weed.
According to The Cannabis Movement of St. Lucia, Browne is “the first sitting Caribbean head of government who has acknowledged the wrongs against Rastafari in the Parliament of Antigua and Barbuda and has issued an official apology to the Rastafarian community.”
I don’t smoke. Few of my family or friends do. Even fewer smoke weed. But I welcome Browne’s “courage”, as the movement called it. Marijuana users should never be forced to flee from “the Philistines”.